My current WiP is a science-fiction piece which is less about characters coping with a particular problem, and more about the process they go through in reaction to the SF-nal catalyst. My story is not without conflict, but the main driving force is "where will this develop to next?" rather than "how will this situation be resolved?"

This has been giving me trouble, because "where will this develop?" is a less immediate, engaging question than "how will this be resolved?" My first draft feels loose and meandering; while early scenes and later scenes have clear causal links, the focus is so different (because characters are at different stages of the process, so their problems and occupations are different) that the scenes don't feel strongly related to each other.

I've seen many cases of stories which focus solely on describing a process. For example, in Joe Haldeman's Four Short Novels, he gives four flash-fiction pieces with the structure of "Society X had Technology Y, let's see what happens to them." In Peter Beagle's Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French, one strange occurence keeps sending out ripple after ripple of new changes and reactions, with no overt conflict or goal trying to be achieved.

What techniques and considerations should I use to write a story focusing on such a process? How do I make it clear that the focus is on the process; that there are going to be constant "ripples" and wrinkles; that we've got intriguing reactions to look forward to even though we don't know yet what they're going to be?

  • "the process they go through in reaction to the SF-nal catalyst" - Does that mean the process of the characters' reactions changing over time, or their process in dealing with the situation? A concrete example might help make this easier to parse. Commented May 2, 2012 at 16:59
  • @NeilFein: Well, the Four Short Novels story I linked gives four examples which are short, but very clear. I want to do something somewhat similar, albeit at great length.
    – Standback
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 18:32

3 Answers 3


This exact problem is what makes "pure" science fiction so hard to write properly -- but also so satisfying to read when done well. I don't have a perfect answer, just some thoughts about some story models you can apply:

Notes on conflict
Note that stories are about conflict, but conflict is not necessarily person vs. person. There's also person vs environment (climbing that mountain; surviving that drought), person vs. machine (building that impossible car; surviving against grinding political oppression), and person vs. self (beating addiction; resisting that irresistible temptation)

Process for conflict
Much scientific research and technology invention is done to solve some sort of problem. In this model, that problem is your conflict. The characters have a problem, invent a tech to solve it, then set about solving it with that tech with lots of surprises along the way.

Process causes conflict
Here the tech is innocently developed, but directly causes a host of problems. Those problems are the conflict, and the characters spend the story trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and/or develop past the problems.

Process causes change in milieu
Here the tech doesn't necessarily cause problems itself, but it changes the rules of life/social order so dramatically that it throws society into turmoil. Think of the switch from agrarian to industrial society for example. The conflict is whatever you think those changes will spark and you can show snapshots in time with different characters the way you're describing.

Process as a character
This model is probably the one you want. In fact, this one can be used along with any of the other models. Here you treat that tech/process as a character itself. Not necessarily as a living, breathing, sleeping around kind of character (though that's possible), but rather that the process follows a development arc the way a person character would -- it undergoes some kind of transformation over the course of the story.

Two ways to effect this transformation: If the process is mutable, you can have the process change, that is develop, over time in response to the various character's attempts to deal with it. If it's immutable, you'll need to hide the entirety of the process at the beginning and reveal it to the reader in stages over time, via what the various characters discover or experience.

One key thing to make this work is that just like an interesting character, an interesting process needs its own unique "voice", or flavor, that remains consistently distinct throughout the story. What you want is the reader to be "watching" the process, riveted by what'll happen or be revealed next, rather than watching the characters.

Hope this helps.

  • Very nice answer! You've given me a lot of great directions to consider here - thanks :)
    – Standback
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 21:24

Each character or set of characters has their own arc. "How will this develop?" is that arc.

The simplest way to tie all the arcs together is to set them all in the same period of time. Try starting with the same event at the beginning of each character's section — for added emphasis, use exactly the same wording for a paragraph or two — and then track each character or set of characters for roughly the same amount of time.

For example, a wormhole rips open in the middle of Main Street in Wichita, KS, and seven aliens fall through and land in the lobby of Mary's Bait & Tackle & Library. Your sections cover the next 48 hours.

Section 1 follows Mary as she tries to clean up and figure out what to do with the visitors.

Section 2 covers Pete and Mark, who watch the wormhole on the news. They live in Albany, NY. They've been having marital difficulties, but this event reorders their priorities and suddenly their problems seem rather small and silly.

Section 3 is the POV of FBI Special Agent Chen, who is an amateur astronomer and a conspiracy buff, which is only exacerbated by his job. He tries to work his way onto the task force dealing with the aliens.

Section 4 is told by Giovanna, a seven-year-old living in Rome who just saw E.T. and learns about the visitors from her teacher in school.

You can present them sequentially and repeat the time period for each arc (like Tolkien did in The Two Towers), interweave them (like Peter Jackson did in The Two Towers), or group them according to geography (like George R.R. Martin did in A Feast for Crows/A Dance With Dragons).

Another good example of this is Dean Koontz's Strangers. The Event happened some time before the story opens, different people had their memories wiped or altered in different ways, and they are overcoming the wipe or alteration each in their own fashion and to different degrees. Everyone is geographically scattered and not everyone experienced the same thing.

You need some constant for the reader to measure the process against. Time, as Dana Scully once told us, is the universal invariant. Start there.


I would have to agree with Lauren Ipsum's answer. Why? Because it is more character based.

We experience a story through its characters. Or put another way, we connect emotionally to a story through it's characters. The only way to have a visceral experience is through the human characters that we can relate to, root for, put ourselves in their shoes, etc. No matter how much you try to make an atomic bomb, for example, a character, it is still an inanimate object.

If you show us the result of detonating the atomic bomb, say over the course of three generations of a family who lived near ground zero, then you have a story. But the event, the object, the process, the technology, are all set pieces and nothing more.

Show me a character, or group of characters dealing with the process and how it changes over time, and I'll be emotionally invested. Show me the process with cardboard characters, or worse, vignettes of characters, then I'll soon get bored and be done with it.

Consider this: M. Night Shyamalan's story The Happening failed because the main antagonist was good 'ol mother nature. The premise of nature rebeling against people because of our abuse may be well intended, but who can relate to or feel any emotional connection to overcoming nature. The story's protagonist is a human in this case but the second most important character is the antagonist. The same would hold true if the roles were reversed.

Science Fiction works best when it's grounded in a human character or setting we can relate to. This is especially crucial when you create a fantasical futuristic world with strange bizzare characters. We need something to ground the story in order to connect to it. In the Hunger Games, we have such a futuristic world but are grounded in the District 12 characters and the setting of a rural mining town. we can all relate to this. So many science fiction stories fail because they fail to ground the story with a character or setting we can relate to.

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